Saturday, April 11, 2015

Pakistan decides to remain ‘neutral’ in the Yemen conflict

Pakistan’s parliament has unanimously passed a resolution expressing its ‘desire that Pakistan should maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict.’ While the resolution also reaffirms Pakistan’s ‘unequivocal support of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,’ this desire for neutrality indicates that the country will not be joining the Saudi-led military coalition that is currently fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. The parliamentary resolution is not binding on the executive branch of government, meaning that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif could still decide to take part in the coalition. But the fact that it was passed unanimously and that large parts of the resolution were proposed by senior cabinet member Dar, who is a member of the ruling PML-N party, suggests that it is highly unlikely the government will defy it. 

Members of both houses of parliament began debating involvement in Yemen on Monday, since when many Pakistani politicians and lawmakers have spoken out against joining the coalition. The request put forward by Saudi Arabia placed Pakistan in a difficult position. On the one hand, Pakistan is a longstanding ally to Saudi Arabia and they share strong economic, military and religious ties. On the other hand, it shares a border with Iran, a country allegedly providing assistance to the Houthi rebels that Saudi Arabia is trying to defeat. Agreeing to provide military troops and equipment to the Saudi-led coalition could therefore possibly sour relations between Pakistan its neighbour.

Getting involved could possibly also inflame sectarian tensions domestically. Last Friday, anti-Shia armed groups in Pakistan – including those behind numerous incidents of anti-Shia violence in recent years – took to the streets to express their support for the Saudis and their detestation of Iranian influence. If the Pakistani government were to join Sunni Saudi Arabia, or indeed Shia Iran, that could serve to induce more protests and even sectarian violence. Pakistan has a Sunni majority but the Shia minority makes up around one-fifth of the population, making Pakistan the largest home to Shias outside Iran. Pakistan is therefore afraid of being caught in the middle of two actors that are on the verge of an all-out proxy war on Yemeni soil. 

Deciding against joining the Saudi-led military coalition was a smart move. Not only could it complicate things at home, but also abroad. While Pakistan still remains an ally to Saudi Arabia, the decision to remain neutral in the Yemen conflict suggests that the country is still capable of making tough decisions that it perceives to be in its best interest.  

Friday, March 13, 2015

Promising Steps towards Peace?

In an attempt to foster peace in the region, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani pursues a strategy of dialogue and reconciliation with Pakistan, Afghanistan’s Eastern neighbour and the Taliban’s erstwhile backer. With Pakistan and China offering their support, latest peace initiatives appear more promising than recent attempts. There are signs of cooperation and improving relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan as the Pakistani government threatened to arrest or expel Taliban leaders, in case they refuse to negotiate with the Afghan government. In return, Afghanistan has made ‘a string of once unthinkable concessions to Pakistan’ (Guardian, 10.03.2015) and targeted strongholds of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) in its eastern provinces neighbouring Pakistan.

However promising developments appear, scepticism about the prospects for peace remains. One major obstacle is the internal rift within the Taliban, which informs the commonly used differentiation between the Taliban as a whole and the so-called ‘reconcilable elements of the Taliban’. Hence, while political leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour is in favour of engagement, commander Abdul Qayum Zakir, who used to be detained in Guantanamo and holds sway over several thousand fighters in eastern Afghanistan, opposes negotiations. According to Reuters, attempts of Mansour to overcome differences with his opponent and convince him to join the negotiating table failed as Zakir believes that only the United States hold real power in the region and negotiations with the Afghan government will be irrelevant.

A further obstacle threatens to delay peace talks – the irreconcilable demands of the Taliban in return for negotiations. In a recent interview, one of Ghani’s aides presumes that the Taliban will not only demand an immediate departure of foreign troops from Afghanistan but also a re-imposing of the harsh interpretation of Islamic law, the movement had enforced during its rule. These demands would be unacceptable for the Afghan government and hence pose the threat of another diplomatic deadlock. The upcoming weeks and months will be crucial for Afghanistan, Pakistan and the future stability of the entire region. One can only hope that Ghani’s attempts succeed and the Taliban will join the government at the negotiating table.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Significance of ISIS in Pakistan

TTP leaders pledge allegiance to ISIS.

The chief spokesperson for Pakistani Taliban (TTP), Shahidullah Shahid, and five other TTP commanders pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October last year, giving rise to fears that there may be an increase in popularity for ISIS in Pakistan. The tribal areas in north-west Pakistan have historically been seen as a hotbed for militant groups and the strength and popularity of the Taliban in the area suggests an enthusiasm for hard-line Islamic ideology. With that in mind, it is perhaps worrying that key members of the Pakistani Taliban have now decided to align themselves with ISIS instead. The question here is: whether the move represents a current of support for ISIS in the region or whether it is merely representative of the fragmentation of the TTP?

Certainly, since the death of TTP leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, in a drone strike last year, the group has appeared to be more divided and lacking in leadership. There has been an increase in desertions and the government offensive, Zarb-e-Azb, has had notable successes against them, including the destruction of their economic base in North Waziristan. The Peshawar school attack in December may be seen in this light as an act of desperation from the Pakistani Taliban. These factors coupled with the success of ISIS mean that the change in allegiance of key members of the TTP is not necessarily a worrying phenomenon and may be explained by the TTP’s demise.

ISIS itself, however, announced on January 11th its organisational structure for ‘Khorasan’ (Afghanistan and Pakistan) with a former TTP leader, Hafez Saaed Khan at its head. The announcement included Shahidullah Shahid as a spokesperson and several other ex-TTP leaders and showed the beheading of what is thought to be a Pakistani soldier. Shahid then called on followers to “prepare for the great tribulations they will face”. The implementation of this organisational structure and reference to preparation for the future shows the potential for future activities in the country. The threat of ISIS in Pakistan may therefore be growing and it is a threat that should not be ignored.

In a country with over 200 religious organisations and a history (at least in the tribal areas) of extremist militant groups, the climate in Pakistan may be conducive. ISIS Leaflets have been distributed across the country in the last year, which could be read as fairly innocuous but it seems to suggest that there is at least some support for the group and indeed, that there has been some effort from ISIS (or its supporters) to promote the group in Pakistan. The financial and territorial success of ISIS far exceeds that of any other extremist group in the Middle East, so it seems probable that it will absorb smaller, less successful groups that don’t have the same, organised leadership structure - as recent defection by key TTP members demonstrates.

The National Security and Foreign Affairs Adviser, Sartaj Aziz, said recently that “Islamic State is not a major threat. It is not a serious problem for Pakistan”. His view is founded on the belief that the threat of ISIS will remain in the tribal areas where Pakistan have significant military operations in place to combat it. In saying this, he has effectively likened the threat of ISIS to that of the other militant groups in the tribal areas. This is an oversight: the rapid expansion and organisational structure of ISIS give it the potential to bring different factions together and provide a greater, more united threat than is currently seen in the region. Not only that but the current success of government forces in tribal areas may mean that there are more militants in search of strong leadership and direction; this is something ISIS are perceived to able to provide. Perhaps the greatest fear then is that the Pakistani government have overlooked the potential seriousness of this threat.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

India and Pakistan: Escalation of water issues

“Water Flows or Blood”, “Water or War”, “Indian Water Bomb”, “Liberate Kashmir to Secure Water” – these are some of the man slogans used by groups such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD). They are using the simmering water issue to call for a jihad against India. The slogans allude to Pakistan’s anxiety, as a lower riparian, that India could turn it barren by cutting off water supplies of the Indus.

A 2013 report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) showed Pakistan as one of the most “water stressed” countries in the world. In a recent statement by Chaudhry Abid Sher Ali, Pakistan’s minister for water and power blamed India for the shortage of water in Pakistan as it constructed dams and other hydropower project along the Indus and warned that such shortage will “spell catastrophe for Pakistan”.

Such incidents lead to perception raised by Indian scholars and politicians that Pakistan is politicizing trans-boundary water issues. Water becomes inevitably linked to politics and affects ongoing tensions between the two neighbours. Parts of the Indian intelligentsia go as far as to hypothesize that water may replace Kashmir as the most explosive political issue determining the future of Indo-Pakistan relations.

In 1960, both India and Pakistan complied and signed the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) assigning the entire flow of the three eastern rivers – the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi – to India, the western rivers – the Chenab, Jhelum and Indus – to Pakistan. Through its administrative organ, the Indus Commission, composed of Indian and Pakistani representatives, the IWT provides for specific conflict resolution mechanisms. If the Commission is unable to resolve a dispute then it will be handed over to the governments of India and Pakistan who then consult a neutral expert as a last step before the dispute is finally settled in a Court of Arbitration. With this multi-step settlement mechanism and its detailed wording the founding fathers wanted to ensure the IWT’s ability to settle water disputes between the two are on a functional rather than a political basis.

Even though India’s compliance with the restrictions of the IWT was assured, Pakistan in 1966 first raised concerns that India was interfering with the flow of the western rivers violating certain provisions of the Treaty. As the lower riparian of the Indus, Pakistan is anxiety ridden. It perceives its geographical disadvantage and vulnerability as a security threat and is constantly worried that its neighbour could either run the country dry by cutting off necessary water supplies or release excess water causing flooding downstream. Pakistan’s fears have led to disputes over many Indian hydropower projects on the western rivers that could be resolved bilaterally by discussions on government level.

One such project is the Baglihar dam on the Chenab which caused greater hurdles for the IWT’s dispute resolution mechanism. It marked an important “turning point in the history of the IWT”, when Pakistan in 2005 decided to refer the matter to a neutral expert. It was the first time in the history of the Treaty a dispute was referred to a neutral expert; the findings were known to be of precedent-setting importance for future disputes. The report suggested some minor technical adjustments on the dam but generally supported the Indian project’s accordance with the IWT. Pakistan was of course, dissatisfied and accused the neutral expert of jeopardising the future of Pakistan by “re-interpreting” the Treaty.

On the bilateral, national level, water is not treated as the major subject for discussions and disputes. On the sub-national level, with heated discussions in the Pakistani media and agitation by terrorist groups, a different picture begins to emerge. As previously mentioned, organisations like the JuD have fervently started using the water issue to inflame public opinion and accuse India of “water terrorism.” They have organised public rallies, delivered anti-India speeches on TV and use publications like Zarb-e-Momin (a publication of Al-Rasheed Trust), Jarrar (a publication of Jamaat-ud-Dawa) and Al-Qalam (a publication of Jaish-e-Muhammad) to spread their message. The actions and rhetoric of militant groups show that they have taken on the water issue to be utilised as an instrument to gain public support for their general anti-Indian agenda.

In recent years, the Baglihar dispute has re-entered the political arena on a national and, foremost, sub-national level. It has gained prominence in the public arena and serves as an instrument to engender resentment against India.

If the two nations are able to put aside their political differences and collaborate, they can reap huge benefits from the water, energy, food and environmental security viewpoints, as well as in trade and transport. This could potentially become a missed opportunity for development due to lack of cooperation. These opportunities have existed for decades for collaborative efforts in hydropower generation, agricultural development, and flood control and drought management.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

William Morris interviews Sabiha Malik

ANN TV presents THE ENGLISH HOUR with William Morris and special guest Sabiha Malik

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Pakistan - Afghan relations

The Pakistani government is attempting to impose greater control over its western borders with Afghanistan. 

In a recent interview, Pakistan’s top national security advisor, Sartaj Aziz commented that Pakistani and Afghan security officials will meet to discuss cross-border movements between the two states. Aziz also stated that Islamabad will begin issuing special passes to people from the border region to facilitate their cross-border movements and will expedite the visa process for Afghans.

"Even now we issue 1,000 or 2,000 visas to the Afghans everyday," he said. "This is a process and we will know the outline of the new border management once Afghanistan and Pakistan work out its details. We cannot let this border remain porous.”  

Afghanistan has never formally recognized the Durand Line as an international border. The Durand line was created in 1947 when the state of Pakistan was founded and has been a constant cause for tensions. Pakistan has frequently been accused of violating the border because it hosts Afghan insurgents. Kabul and Islamabad often accuse each other of sheltering insurgents.

Whilst there are most certainly insurgents residing on both sides of the border, the reality of the situation is that it is highly likely that neither government is supporting these groups given the authorities have little or no control of the region. 

Border management and cooperation between the two countries might lessen cross-border attacks and restrict any liaisons between Taliban insurgents on both sides of the border. The importance of co-operative security strategy has been highlighted by the increase in violence in Pakistan in the last year, largely along the Durand Line. There were 1,717 terrorist attacks in 2013 (a 9% increase on 2012), that resulted in the deaths of 2,451 people (a 19% increase) and the injuries of 5,438 (a 42% increase).

With the handover of Afghanistan looming, there are serious concerns that we will see a Taliban takeover as soon as NATO turns its back. Hence peace talks between Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Afghan President Karzai are important.  

As Afghanistan faces monumental challenges in rebuilding its civil society, India needs to improve relations and cooperate with Pakistan to maintain relative peace in the region.